“Living history” museums are like senior citizen housing centers. They’re remarkable reminders of the past, they dress and smell a little strangely, and all of the residents are effectively trapped there, waiting for people to visit. Every year, fourth-graders on field trips and old people collectively go on pilgrimages to places that people used to live in before highways and the Internet were invented, staffed by actors wearing period costumes and pretending the world was frozen in place 300 years ago by some kind of time ray.
The actors choose to live there, taking on the role on a daily basis. Their kids, on the other hand, have no choice. We spoke to one of the former children who grew up in Colonial Williamsburg during the late ’80s and who took a break from partying like it’s 1699 to tell us …
#5. You Can’t Have Anything Modern Be Visible In Your House
Several decades ago, one of my parents began to work at Colonial Williamsburg. At the time, Williamsburg was just on its way to becoming a travel destination for families who like the long, boring parts of vacation, such as traveling and sightseeing, but inexplicably hate all of the fun parts, such as beaches and roller coasters. My family moved into a historical house from the 17th century that we were told was an employee “perk.” We were to be living in the exhibits.
Whether building codes from the same time as Ben Franklin count as a benefit
is a question only the next major natural disaster can answer.
What they didn’t tell us about our new house was that it came with a list of insane rules designed to preserve the illusion that my family and I were currently living under the British crown. Most of them pertained to ensuring that nothing resembling a modern invention could be seen around your home, but try to imagine doing this in your own home. It gets complicated. We had things such as grills and bicycles we had to tuck away behind our houses.
Somehow, the rules got even more intrusive than that. Since the land our house was on was owned by the museum, the actual interior layout of our home had to be Colony-approved. Aside from the obvious rules about having a SNES sitting out where tourists can see it, our furniture had to look “18th century enough” to fool all the tourists occasionally peeking into our windows.
That “mattress” is really stacked-up video-game cartridges and bags of Sour Patch Kids.
As a result, I grew up on a street that had nonstop tourists going by and sometimes looking in. When I began visiting other friends at their houses, I was amazed that they left toys out in the open and didn’t have to hide them. I just had this notion that we always had to hide things away from tourists.
Going to school even got a little weird. Buses wouldn’t run into most of the historical parts of the colony, so I literally took a carriage to school like an American Girl doll.
#4. Tourists Have No Respect For Boundaries
Most of the tourists (*ahem*, I mean guests) weren’t so bad. Many just enjoyed walking around, visiting the museums, and having a colonial chat or two with us. However, far too many decided to get a little more up-close and personal than the 17th century would realistically prefer.
While guests were allowed to look in the historical homes, many people abused this privilege and just watched us — I mean full-on staring at us through our windows at least once a week. Like I mentioned, I grew up around this, so it didn’t strike me as unusual, and my parents were actually jazzed that we got to experience this. Some people wanted to show off the inside of the homes (like my family), and others opted to just black curtain it off from tourists.
Too bad window blinds weren’t invented in the 1750s.
People looking in was harmless enough, but things did get dangerous … at least for the animals. I would frequently see guests try to feed them all sorts of things. Horses were huge targets; tourist after tourist tried to feed them totally inedible objects, such as plastic beads or wood, because they apparently thought horses were just enlarged goats.
“I’m not, but you’re definitely an enlarged jackass.”
#3. We Have Actors Who Pretend To Be Slaves (And That Gets Awkward)
Colonial Williamsburg is, above all things, a museum, and it tackles every part of colonial history, including the racist parts. Southern Virginia has a large African-American population, so, consequently, we had a lot of black actors portraying slaves in town. As far as I know, Williamsburg is the only living history museum to show slavery to the extent we did.
It’s not like Walt Disney World is lining up to build “Mr. Turner‘s Wild Ride”.
There are small tobacco crops growing in Colonial Williamsburg, and the black actors will go out and do just enough field work for the visitors to look at. Visitors can also ask the actors questions, and, to put it nicely, some can be kind of insensitive about it (because, duh, there are insensitive people in this world). I’ve literally heard guests ask the actors if they ever get whipped, because people will always be exactly as terrible as they feel they are allowed to be in any given situation. But, the actors and reenactors were armed with the facts and highly trained — they knew exactly what to say.
Slave auctions are, for whatever reason, another hot topic. To be clear, we have never reenacted any of those, but when the guests ask about them, the actors pretend as if there is an auction coming up and use it as a chance to discuss the emotional impact of being sold like livestock. It’s pretty dark, but, like I said, Colonial Williamsburg is a museum, and nothing good ever came from pretending shameful acts of human cruelty never happened.
Where this took a turn for the terrible was when people, mostly children, would ask the “slaves” how much it would cost to buy them. This happens way more often than you would be comfortable thinking about. The “slave” actors in particular have a hard time with this — because they’re museum employees, they know what the factual answer is, but the whole point of the job is to be able to demonstrate how awful slavery was without being glib about it.
There is a silver lining, however. Many of the children making “offers” to buy the actors, especially the ones who aren’t totally aware that it’s all an act, do so because they want to set the actors free. So, as long as we teach kids to be like this, instead of training them to, I don’t know, feed trash to horses, everything should turn out okay.
My job didn’t require those kind of awkward exchanges, but I still had to interact with guests …
#2. The Kids Are (Unpaid) Performers
I won’t pretend to have any idea how difficult it is to get many small children to wear fancy clothing to a wedding or a funeral (I personally loved it, and you couldn’t get me out of it), but I dare any parent to attempt to get their child to dress like a 17th-century colonist every other day. I wore historical period dress three to four times per week as a kid, and it was quite the experience.
First off, we had our own costume department through which all of the clothing was handmade. A ton of time and money went into it. I remember women’s corsets having a two-year waiting period because they all had to be custom-made. As children, we had a file documenting our measurements and growth. because puberty is a costume designer’s worst nightmare. So, yeah, my parents had to keep a bunch of costumers in the loop as I grew up.
Nothing eases the humiliation of puberty like sharing your measurements with a glaring seamstress.
All of this was so that we could walk around acting like old-timey kids, turning us into unpaid performers (which absolutely seems like it’s in violation of a bunch of child labor laws). For example, the museum would often put out exciting games for us such as lawn bowling, just so tourists could point at me and my friends and say, “Oooohhh, look at the time children!” and get their children to come play with us. The colonial higher-ups would bribe us with candy to play with tourist children for three hours at a time, but, sweet mother of Pocahontas, we were never bored. The tourist kids would play with us for a couple minutes before asking us where the gift shop was so that they could have their parents buy them their very own wooden toys to take home.
“And it’s only yours for only 40 sheets of that strange paper you carry with General Washington on it!”
Colonial Williamsburg also puts on huge reenactments during the summer, with people portraying historical figures coming out to visit our town. It’s all hands on deck, but, since real colonial children were little more than bred farmhands, we were just expected to be scenery during these big productions. We were told to walk up and down streets with our pet goats and/or chickens, or maybe just spin wool under a tent. Again, we weren’t paid. But, since our parents did it, we had to pitch in, too.
So, why would a family decide to go through all of this?
#1. We’re Literally Keeping the Past Alive
Living history sites are run by people who love history and who are dedicated to making sure every single detail is historically accurate. This is another way of saying that anytime there was a project going on, everyone brought out their inner Stanley Kubrick. And 17th-century Stanley Kubrick is the Stanley Kubrickiest Stanley Kubrick there is.
For those not up on their lunatic filmmakers, that’s code for “Utterly batshit.”
For instance, all those animals the tourists feed garbage to? Colonial Williamsburg has a rare breeds program that has halted the extinction of several animals and reintroduced others that were around back in the days of wooden dentures and towns with five buildings in them. They brought in a shipment of Leicester Sheep from New Zealand (a breed that the colonists originally brought to America from the UK, but since died out), and, now, they are the only ones currently on the continent. They also brought back a few types of cows from the brink of nonexistence.
That’s right — we are so dedicated to historical accuracy that we essentially did a less-dangerous Jurassic Park operation. Some guests get confused that we aren’t running a more traditional Old MacDonald-type farm, but we are simply keeping animals that Williamsburg settlers would have had.
Minus the corks on the horns.
It isn’t just animals, either. We keep the cooper trade (the crafting of wooden utensils, casks, and barrels) alive, specifically the kind of cooper who isn’t just making whiskey barrels. We have one of the few gunsmiths who still makes and repairs flintlock pistols — he’s currently got a backlog about five years long for handmade guns. We’re home to one of the last silversmith programs in the United States. We even have our own movie studio of sorts — Cold Mountain is one of more than a few major productions to have filmed at Colonial Williamsburg, because we maintain the colonial aesthetic so well (in exchange for small sacrifices like privacy and the ability to ride a bus to school).
So, if Hollywood ever decides to make a movie about, say, the 1700s, there’s a place in Virginia for that.
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